Jessie Hill - Ooh Poo Pah Doo Pt II (MINIT 607)
Ooh Poo Pah Doo - Part II
The importance of the disc jockey in the R&B market cannot be overstated. If a hot DJ liked your record and plugged it on the air, you were pretty much guaranteed a hit. The hottest DJ in New Orleans back in 1960 was a cat named Larry McKinley. Many's the R&B classic he "broke" on his show and sent on it's way to the top of the national charts (not the least of which was Ray Charles' "What'd I Say"). It was a stroke of brilliance when vinyl distributor Joe Banashak asked him to be a partner in his new label, MINIT records. Talk about air time!
In January of 1960, McKinley arranged to hold an open audition at WYLD studios as a way of scouting talent for the new company. That one night resulted in the signing of Benny Spellman, Aaron Neville, Allen Orange and Jessie Hill (Irma Thomas and Joe Tex also tried out but were still under contract to other labels). Allen Orange brought along a piano player to accompany him, one Allen Toussaint. He ended up playing behind most of the other folks who had shown up, and so impressed McKinley and Banashak that they asked him to be the new label's producer and arranger.
Jessie Hill was a drummer that had worked with such luminaries as Professor Longhair, Bobby Marchan, and Huey "Piano" Smith as well as with his own group, "The House Rockers" (Longhair claimed he was the only drummer who could keep up with him!). He brought a "raggedy" tape to the audition with him of a tune he had written that was just tearin' it up at his live gigs. That song was the immortal "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", and Minit decided to go with it. Toussaint produced the session, playing piano along with Jessie's regular band.
The record broke big in New Orleans, and absolutely buried poor Al Johnson's "Carnival Time" as the big Mardi-Gras record in 1960. After Banashak worked out a few kinks with national distribution, the song just ate up the R&B charts. Although it was the truly incredible Part 1 that was creating a disturbance in everyone's mind, and has become a perennial Carnival classic, it was today's B side, Part II, that crossed over to the pop charts and actually is listed as #28 in Billboard's Hot 100 for 1960 (I guess white America just wasn't ready for Jessie's vocals...)! This track provided the first national exposure of Toussaint's piano based productions and laid the groundwork for Minit's string of big hits. It also is one of the first recorded examples of true "9th Ward Music" - that infectious call and response funky thang that guys like Eddie Bo and Oliver Morgan (who jammed with Jessie as neighborhood kids) would run with so well.
In addition to good ol' Alvin Robinson on guitar, The House Rockers at this point also included the awesome David Lastie on sax, as well as future AFO Executives John Boudreaux on drums and Richard Payne on the bass. They went out on a national tour to support the record, making it as far as the famed Apollo Theater in New York City. Jessie had never seen that much money in his life, and apparently was blowing it as fast as it was coming in, without saving too much for the rest of the band. Before they even got back to New Orleans, the group had broken up for good. Minit released a few more singles on him, but Jessie never was able to match the success of his first hit.
In 1961 he discovered a young singer named Barbara George and brought her around to Harold Battiste's newly formed AFO records along with his brother-in-law, Lawrence "Prince La-La" Nelson. George went on to score the number 3 record on the pop charts that year, while La-La would become the stuff of New Orleans legend.
The following year Jessie left town on a tour with Joe Jones and just walked away, winding up in California. By the mid-sixties he was working with Battiste, Rebennack and the rest of the NOLA in exile crowd in L.A.. He had never stopped writing music, and teamed up with Rebennack to form a publishing company called "I Found It Music". They would hole up for days at a time and crank out tunes for Battiste's productions on ATCO and PULSAR. BMI lists Jessie as the author or co-author on 132 tunes covered by artists ranging from Sonny & Cher to Ike & Tina Turner to Paul Revere & the Raiders!
He teamed up with Shirley Goodman (of Shirley & Lee fame) to record some duets for Wand records (Jessie and Shirley also became founding members of Dr. John's "Night Trippers", appearing on the voodoo classic Gris-Gris), and released a few singles of his own on Pulsar and Chess, without much success. A universally panned album, "Naturally", was released on Blue Thumb records in 1972.
By the mid-seventies, Jessie's fortunes in California seemed to be on the decline (punctuated by a trip to jail and a stolen Cadillac), and in 1977 he returned home to New Orleans. Despite the occasional gig at Tipitina's and the annual dual-tambourine shakin' second line at Jazz Fest, Jessie wasn't doing much musically. He actually began operating a black Caddy nicknamed "The Poo Cab" as a way of making some money...
Some time in the eighties I saw a show upstairs at The Village Gate (now a CVS pharmacy...ugh!) in NYC; Dr. John along with Allen Toussaint and Jessie Hill... My, My! Toussaint on piano, Rebennack on guitar, and Jessie just brought down da house!
The 90s were some hard times for "Poo". Years of heroin addiction and booze began to take their toll. Despite a few benefits held for him around the Crescent City, there were reports that he was actually homeless for a while. When he died in 1996, Antoinette K-Doe made matching outfits for herself, Ernie, and Jessie (as pictured in the truly bizarre, only in New Orleans photo at right...). He left behind 14 children, and 50 grandchildren (one of whom, James Andrews, is following in his footsteps, making records with Allen Toussaint and Mac Rebennack!).
Jessie's Minit material is available on CD.
They called him The Most!